I’m pretty sure that I’m literally the only human being on earth who cares about card game anime, and it’s probably not wise of me to drop a fifteen-minute rant about it in the middle of the worst month for ad revenue of the year, but I just put out an SAO video, so I think I’ll be okay. Card game anime all kind of… suck. Or at least, they suck at being anime about card games. I mean there’s plenty of goofy fun to be had with shows like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Duel Masters, Luck and Logic, WIXOSS, Fantasista Dolls, EX Ignition, Dinosaur King, Mon Colle Knights and Jesus fucking Christ how many of these are there?
For glorified commercials, these shows range from serviceable, to pretty gosh-darn great shonen and shoujo fantasy fare, but I don’t think they really accurately represent the appeal of the card games that they’re supposed to be selling us. In fact, I don’t think that any card game anime properly conveys the fun of playing trading card games, at least not in its entirety. There’s this formula that many battle toy anime follow. You start by having your characters play small games for two to three episodes, then you send them to a tournament that lasts for the rest of the core season, and during that tournament they discover some dark, secret, mystical evil that they conveniently need to use many collectible variations of YOUR TOY THAT YOU ARE SELLING to defeat and save the world.
This formula works, it makes for really entertaining kids’ TV, but the trouble is that it really has nothing to do with the product. I mean, you can literally use the same basic structure to make it exciting to watch bread rise. Someone did, actually, and it’s great. You can sub out this formula for something different. Mon Colle Knights puts a comedy isekai Pokemon spin on card collecting, while WIXOSS turns it into one of those magical girl Faustian bargain with the devil deals, which is actually really good, but the underlying issue remains.
By putting the focus of your card game anime on something other than the card game, you’re implicitly saying; “This thing is not interesting enough to carry a TV show on its own.” But the thing is, TCGs are really fun on their own. Take this from someone who was obsessed with Yu-Gi-Oh!
and then Hearthstone for a good four years of his life. There’s so much strategy and thought that goes into building your deck into a well-oiled machine, and piloting it against other players who’ve done the same. Enough that I honestly think you could build a whole series out of it.
What is this X-factor that’s missing from so many TCG anime? What is it that makes card games so uniquely enjoyable? In a word; planning.
Rather than being won in the moment of play, the outcomes of TCG duels are largely decided by the foresight and strategy of players, before a game or tournament even begins. But actually collecting cards and building decks is rarely, if ever, touched on in these shows. TCGs are all about dealing with uncertain elements, from the cards that you draw from your deck in a game, to the booster packs that you use to build that deck, to the cards that other players choose to field in their decks. Note that I say “uncertain” though, rather than “random,” because that’s an important distinction. The core skill in any TCG is mitigating luck as a factor as much as possible, minimizing the odds of bad outcomes, and maximising good ones. You can never be 100% sure of what cards you’ll draw, or what your opponent will be playing, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t predict it and skew probability in your favor.
The most obvious way that you can do this is that you have absolute control over the cards in your deck, which means you can basically stack it so that everything either synergizes with your core strategy, or helps you reach cards that do. Yu-Gi-Oh! the anime constantly shows that the key to winning a children’s card game lies in “trusting your deck” and “believing in the Heart of the Cards™,” but that’s absolute horseshit. While it may make for a thrilling anime moment to luckily pull the last piece of Exodia from your deck at the last possible moment, that’s not really a good strategy for consistently winning games. In reality, anyone playing Exodia is going to stack their deck with as many cards as possible that either stall their opponent, draw more cards, or search for more pieces of Exodia, so that the odds of drawing the complete set go from being fairly low to being almost guaranteed within three to five turns of the game.
They’re not going to build a deck full of random monsters like Yug’s grandpa and hope for the best. Yami Yugi – “My grandpa’s deck has no pathetic cards!” This is something that card game anime rarely ever touch on, but it’s essential to playing TCG as well: Knowing your win condition.
Based on anime, a lot of new players think that winning is just a matter of putting the strongest cards together in a deck, and playing them better than your opponent. I know that’s what I thought when I first started getting really serious about Yu-Gi-Oh! But in reality, the purpose of your deck isn’t to give you access to a wide variety of strong cards or combos.
You’re really never going to run Dark Magician and Black Luster Soldier in the same deck. It’s to set up a single winning board state. To put a card or combination of cards into play that your opponent can’t defeat, and to do it before they have a chance to do the same. Every card that’s not directly part of this core strategy should be something that either helps you get to the cards you do need, or shuts down the strategies that your win condition is otherwise weak to.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! anime would have you believe that life points are the most important thing in the world, but any hardcore player of any card game will tell you that the only life point that matters is your last one. Different card games have many unique quirks and mechanics that set them apart from each other, but one thing is pretty much constant between all of them: Nine times out of ten, the player who draws the most cards and has the most cards in play wins, because that player gets to their win condition faster, and has a greater chance of drawing a card that counters their opponent’s win condition. This Is true to the point that, if there was a card in Yu-Gi-Oh!
that let you sacrifice all but one of your life points to draw three cards, it would be played at three in every deck in the game. You don’t really see those kinds of interactions in most card game anime, though. The whole idea of planned counter-play just isn’t present, and that’s a real shame, because it’s one of the most interesting parts of real-world TCGs. In real tournaments, players don’t just play one match, they do best of threes. And in most card games, players have a sideboard of fifteen extra cards that they can swap into their deck between rounds in order to have better odds of winning against their opponent’s specific strategy. By looking at what decks are the most powerful vs. which are the most affordable, you can estimate with a fair degree of accuracy what you’re likely to play against at a tournament, or at your local card shop, and adjust the cards in your deck to have a better chance of winning against them.
And you can build a sideboard containing cards that plug holes in your deck’s strategy, or counter other strategies that you expect to see a little less frequently than the most popular ones. There’s a mindgame element to this. Is the opponent who just beat you siding in counters to your counters? Is the guy you just trounced changing his entire strategy into something you have no hope of overcoming? Aside from the initial step of deck-building, the side deck is where TCG’s are won, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an anime that incorporates them at all.
That’s a huge missed opportunity to both create tension and draw out duels without making every turn last forever. And the thing is, that’s the real skill that separates good players from great ones; reading and reacting to the metagame. And there’s plenty of interesting ways that that could be incorporated into an anime’s story. Having characters go scope out their future opponents to get into their heads, or play test games against each other to figure out what decks in a new set are the most powerful. Hell, you could build a whole story arc around a character chasing down a card that they need to complete their deck before a tournament, or scrambling to find a replacement when they realize at the last minute that one of their key cards is a bad fit for their deck. I mean, if you want to talk about card game moments that would make for great anime episodes, think of that one Yu-Gi-Oh!
tournament where everyone was scrambling to get their hands on Elemental Hero Stratos ’cause he’d just been released and he was totally broken, and he was immediately limited to one afterwards. That could make for a great comedy storyline. Or players could even play mindgames with each other, trying to outguess each other’s strategies and trick other players into using cards that will work against them.
That would be a hell of a lot more interesting than “Oh no! I am going to lose because my numbers aren’t big enough! “Oh, yay! I drew the exact card I needed not to lose!” We only see Yugi do anything like this once in the Yu-Gi-Oh!
anime, and it’s low-key one of the douchiest things I’ve ever seen an anime protagonist do. At the start of Duelist Kingdom, Yugi gives Joey Time Wizard, an OP effect monster that serves as a key piece in his strategy, by destroying his opponent’s monsters, and buffing up his Baby Dragon. What Yugi doesn’t tell Joey is that Time Wizard also buffs Dark Magician, giving him an effect that lets Yugi play spell cards from his hand on his opponent’s turn like trap cards, which basically means that Dark Magician is a hard counter to Time Wizard, and since Yugi helped Joey build his deck around it, when he goes into the final tournament match with Joey he knows that it’s all but guaranteed that his “friend” will play Time Wizard, handing the duel to him on a silver platter. He makes this big show about them being on equal footing, but in the end, he had the duel rigged before they even started. Of course, the Yu-Gi-Oh!
anime doesn’t realize this implication of what happened, but imagine if a villain or rival character intentionally did something like this to the hero of a more down-to-earth TCG anime, maybe as a heel-turn moment. That could be a really cool scene. And there are many other moments of potential card game awesomeness that we’ll probably never see in anime because anime creators just aren’t interested in telling those kinds of stories.
Picture an anime that’s about a group of friends preparing for games at their local card shop, and then gearing up for their first regional, and then national tournaments, studying opponents, reading the meta, going to booster set releases, and trying to build the newest decks by buying and trading cards with everybody else. A show with a structure not unlike a sports anime. Would it be as exciting as calling down the Egyptian gods onto the deck of a blimp to battle for the fate of the world?
Maybe not in the same way, but with an emphasis on interpersonal drama and self-improvement, I could easily see it being as engaging as something like Haikyuu!! or Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma actually provides a really good roadmap for this. There are a lot of similarities between the preparations for that show’s cooking duels, and the art of deck building. Though Soma mainly takes on opponents one-on-one instead of in a tournament setting, he still spends a lot of time analyzing their strategies and figuring out ways to counter them. The battle is really won before it even begins, and anime fans love this dynamic in Food Wars!
I put out a whole video about it last fall. Food Wars! proves that this kind of conflict can be exciting.
So does Baby Steps, which spends as much time focusing on Eiichirou’s preparation for tournaments and how he studies opponents as it does on the matches themselves. I’d love to see a TCG anime take on a similar approach to these shows, be it something more absurd, set in a card game high school, like Shokugeki no Soma, or a more realistic story, where the entire world’s economy and education system isn’t based on a children’s toy, about friends at a local card shop having fun. Those details don’t matter so much. The important thing is the focus on strategy and planning over luck and friendship or whatever.
I’ve seen exactly one anime come close to doing this right; Cardfight!! Vanguard. In the first two seasons, we actually see characters buying booster packs and even structure decks, and rebuilding their strategies around the new cards they acquire. A lot of time is spent at local card shops playing small games and tournaments, leading into bigger events with higher stakes. We see proper deck engines in play, and understand how they achieve victory, and we see the work that goes into these characters getting better at the game, and eventually winning it. The characters even talk about the idea of a “winning image,” or win condition, as an essential part of deck building.
Not only is it interesting and unique to see a show focus on this, it also makes for really effective advertising. When I first saw Misaki stacking her deck with her Oracle Think Tank archetype, I distinctly remember thinking “I bet that would be a lot of fun to play.” Something that kind of gets lost when a show focuses on luck and world-threatening stakes with every game. Unfortunately, as its seasons go on Cardfight!!
slowly devolves into trips to alien planets, and battles against an evil void that STEALS YOUR SOUL IF YOU LOSE AT CARD GAMES!! It loses faith in the more grounded depiction of TCG play that set it apart from stuff like Yu-Gi-Oh!, eventually becoming just like those shows. And while it seems to have worked commercially, the show’s been airing continuously since 2011, I can’t be the only one who thinks that kinda sucks.
Again, pointing to Shokugeki no Soma, a lot of people have been disappointed with the Central arc for shifting the focus of the series from “cooking the very best like no one ever cooked” to this ideological battle for the soul of Totsuki Academy against the evil council of food villains. It’s not necessarily bad, I enjoyed it a little bit, but it feels more… anime than it needs to, at the expense of what made the series special in the first place. I get why shows have this focus. They’re aimed at children, and it’s easier to wow kids by showing them big, cool monsters, sold at a corner store near you, battling each other for the fate of the world. But Vanguard proves that more grounded stories can work, and the success of sports anime like Haikyuu!! demonstrates that you really don’t need big, dumb anime magic fights with massive stakes on a world-changing scale to keep kids engaged.
Or adults, for that matter. I don’t know, it’s entirely possible that I really am the only person in the world who cares about this, but I think there’s something really exciting and engaging about real-world TCGs that anime, for the dozens of attempts that it’s made, has never properly tapped into. And if a show ever manages to do that and stick to its guns, I think it could be something really special. What do you guys think?
Am I alone in this? Have I gone too nerdy with this video, or are any of you also dissatisfied with the current state of TCG anime? And if you currently play a card game, which one is it, what makes you like it, and what deck do you play? I’d love to hear your answers in the comments below.
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Don’t you wanna be cool? What are you gonna spend that money on anyway? Card games?
Eh, good choice, I can’t blame you for that, it’s what I was gonna spend it on. I, uh, don’t know where I’m going with this. But I do know where you’re going next! You’re either going to click here to check out my best OPs of 2017 top list, or click here to see me talk about card game anime’s bastard cousin, gambling anime.
And don’t forget to check out my second channel, where I recently put out a Yu-Gi-Oh! podcast powered by Rival software at mycasinoindex.com.